The Evangelical Fall From The Means Of Grace

The various revival movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tended to push the Lord’s Supper to margins of Reformed piety.

It is because we have become practically anti-supernatural and simultaneously super-spiritual in our theology, so that we are, on the one hand, bored with God’s ordinary means of grace (the sacraments) and on the other hand have stopped believing that God can and does use those means to accomplish His purposes. That is to say, we are guilty of a sort of unbelief.


The prayers had been offered, the promises read, and the psalm sung. Two princes stepped forward to receive Communion, but the deacon refused to give them the cup. The superintendent of the city’s pastors ordered a second minister present to take the cup from the deacon and give it to the nobles, and a struggle for the cup ensued. Outraged by the deacon’s insubordination, the superintendent excommunicated him on the spot. This nasty business occurred in 1559 in Heidelberg, Germany. The minister was the Lutheran theologian Tilemann Hesshus (1527–88), and the deacon was a Zwinglian named Klebitz.1

As ugly and sub-Christian as it was, the story of the Communion combatants of 1559 reminds us of a time when men took seriously the means of grace, and it presents us with a sharp contrast to our own times. Few evangelical Christians or churches in our time are so devoted to the Supper as to be willing to argue about its proper use, let alone physically struggle for the cup. Why? It is because we have become practically anti-supernatural and simultaneously super-spiritual in our theology, so that we are, on the one hand, bored with God’s ordinary means of grace (the sacraments) and on the other hand have stopped believing that God can and does use those means to accomplish His purposes. That is to say, we are guilty of a sort of unbelief.

We have replaced the sacraments with spiritual exercises of our own making. A survey of virtually any evangelical bookstore finds dozens of books on spirituality, self-denial, church growth, and recovery from various addictions. Some of these contain useful advice; so did some of the medieval handbooks of spiritual direction. But few of them contain the Gospel, and almost none of them make any reference to the use of the Lord’s Supper as a means to Christian growth.2 Even Reformed churches that confess the Supper to be one of the two divinely instituted means of grace (media gratiae) normally serve the Supper only quarterly.

This essay is something of a continuation of a nineteenth-century debate in Reformed theology. The various revival movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tended to push the Lord’s Supper to margins of Reformed piety. For various other reasons some nineteenth-century Reformed theologians became suspicious of what they regarded as Calvin’s overly mystical view of the Supper. In turn, the German Reformed theologian J. W. Nevin criticized the influence of revivalism and realism on Reformed theology and defended Calvin’s views. 3

The History of the Fall from the Means of Grace
Who should participate in the Lord’s Supper and how they should do it were two of the most hotly contested questions of the sixteenth-century Reformation. For both Luther and Calvin, the Supper was of critical importance as a means of grace, as a testimony to Christ’s finished work, and as a seal of His work for us. Furthermore, it was a means by which our union and fellowship with the risen Christ and with one another was strengthened and renewed. As much as the Lutherans and Reformed disagreed about the relations of Christ’s humanity to His deity and thus the nature of His presence in the Supper they agreed on one very important truth in the Supper the living, Triune God meets His people and nourishes them. The question was not whether, but how.

The most immediate reason for our fall from the Protestant idea of the Supper as a means of grace is that we have become practical modernists. Modernism (or the Enlightenment) was a profoundly anti-Christian theology and worldview. Building upon the conclusions of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), theologians such as Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) and others began to remove the overtly supernatural elements from Christian theology in order to make it acceptable to the cultured despisers of religion.4 The task and trajectory of modernist theology has been to find a way to do theology without actually believing (in the same way as Luther and Calvin) what it actually taught. (By modernism and modernity I mean to encompass the various Enlightenment movements of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. By rationalism I mean the use of human reason and sense experience as the fulcrum by which all authorities, including Scripture, the creeds, and confessions, are levered.)

Those theologians who accepted the basic rationalist belief of modernity (man is the measure of all things) worked to find ways to express their modernism in Christian terms. Where the Reformation theologians were convinced of God’s present activity in history, modernist theologians were convinced of His present inactivity and hiddenness from us.

The modernist theology provoked a crisis and a reaction. Since we could no longer be certain of God’s existence and care for us by the old-fashioned Protestant ways (preaching of the Word and the use of the sacraments), we abandoned them for more direct and immediate means of knowing and experiencing God. This flight to the immediate encounter with God is pietism or mysticism. Pietism is not to be confused with piety. The latter is that grateful devotion to God, His Word, and His people that is at the heart of Christianity. Pietism believes that what is truly important about Christianity is one’s personal experience of Jesus; it is a retreat into the subjective experience of God apart from any concrete, historical factuality. Though pietism is usually said to have begun with Philipp Jakob Spener (1635–1705), its roots were much deeper in the history of Christianity. World flight and the interior turn were the stuff of early medieval asceticism. Withdrawal from the world was a major theme among both Greek and Latin writers in the early church. Augustine (354–430), Tertullian (ca. 160–225), Jerome (ca. 342–420) in the West, as well as Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150–215) and Origen (ca. 185–ca. 254) in the Greek-speaking church, saw world flight as a means to spiritual improvement.

The via mystica (the mystical way) was one of the most prominent theological influences in the later Middle Ages. Mystical theology preceded and succeeded the twelfth-century development of the technical academic theology known as scholasticism. The synthesis by Pseudo-Dionysius (ca. 500) of neo-Platonism with Christianity produced an important example of early Christian mysticism. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), Hugh and Richard of St. Victor Francis of Assisi (1182–1226), and the Theologia Germanica (ca. fourteenth century) are some of the outstanding examples of medieval mysticism leading up to the Reformation. In the sixteenth century mystical pietism found expression in much of the preaching of the Anabaptist radicals and in the theology of the Silesian (German) Lutheran Jacob Boehme (1575–1624), who taught a theology of direct experience of, and even absorption into, the divine.

Thus when Spener began to organize a pietist reaction to what he perceived to be cold Lutheran orthodoxy, he was only gathering up threads of a movement that had long been active in the church. In fact, Spener’s more radical counterpart George Fox (1624–1691) was even more consistent than Spener.5 Fox was the father of Quakerism or the Society of Friends. He quite logically followed his concern about one’s experience of the “inner Christ” by abandoning the visible church and her sacraments.

In fact, pietism and modernism were family, and those close relations are evident in the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834). He received his earliest Christian training from Moravian pietists. As he reduced Christian theology to the experience of dependence upon God (Gefuhl), he declared that he was now a mature Moravian, and so he was.

Despite its internal differences, the modern evangelical movement is united in its quest for a higher and purer direct experience of the Christ of faith. It is not, however engaged in a more profound search for a more biblical understanding of God’s communion with His people through the signs and seals of the covenant.

Repentance and Restoration to the Means of Grace
American evangelicalism is a pietist, experiential religion that is too busy with cell-group meetings to be troubled with the Lord’s Supper At the same time, we have functionally excommunicated ourselves and, to borrow Calvin’s language, robbed ourselves of Christ’s benefits.6 The remedy for the pietist transformation of sixteenth-century Protestant evangelical religion into a religion of private, personal experience is to repent of our unbelief that God does not or cannot use created means to strengthen or edify us as His people. Here is one of the central differences between the religion of the Protestants and pietist-mysticism: Protestantism believes in the use of divinely ordained means. It also seeks to recapture those divinely ordered gospel instruments.

The Institution of the Supper
The Scriptures teach that God establishes the Lord’s Supper as the means by which He testifies to us and strengthens us in our salvation in Christ by sealing to His people Christ’s twofold benefits: justification and sanctification.7 According to the Synoptic Gospels, our Lord instituted the Supper in the midst of the celebration of the Feast of Passover.8 The Passover was part of a pattern of important communal feasts (including the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles) in which the covenant assembly met to offer worship and in which God drew near to His people.9 The Passover narrative is found in Exodus 12:1–36, the Feast of Weeks in Exodus 34:22 and Numbers 28:26–3 1, and the Feast of Tabernacles in Leviticus 23:34. The Scriptures make it clear that these covenant assemblies were eschatological events with the holy ones of heaven in attendance. (See also Ps. 68:7, 17; Heb. 2:2.) Paul assumes this in 1 Corinthians 11:10: “because of the angels.” God’s people sat at His feet, as it were, to hear the Word and to enjoy sacramental fellowship with Him. Certainly the structure of the liturgical calendar, filled with major and minor feasts, expressed that repeated desire of the Lord to commune with His people.

The Passover pictured this as a time of fulfillment. The very act of painting the doorposts with the blood of a lamb was symbolic of the necessity of the propitiation of God’s holy wrath and the expiation of our sins. The Passover was an eschatological feast as they ate the roast lamb by whose blood they had been redeemed. Already in the Old Covenant believers were tasting the powers of the age to come through these sacramental elements. I am alluding here to Hebrews 6:4–5. Hebrews 11:13 adds that Old Covenant believers died not having received the fulfillment of the promises, but they anticipated the day of fulfillment in Christ. Jesus teaches the same thing in John 8:56. The Passover was also an act of covenant renewal as God’s people ate the Gospel and were called again to a life of holiness in the Feast of Unleavened bread.10

Read More

1 J. I. Good, The Origin of the Reformed Church in Germany (Reading, PA: 1887), PP. 144–45.

2 In this regard, A. E. McGrath’s call to recover a genuinely Protestant piety is an antidote. See Spirituality in an Age of Change: Rediscovering the Spirituality of the Reformers (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 165–73. See also Michael S. Horton, Putting Amazing Back into Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994), pp. 215–36.

3See R. L. Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Richmond, VA: 1878; repr. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975), pp. 810–12; C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, repr. 1982), pp. 646–647; J. W. Nevin, The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed or Calvinistic Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist(Philadelphia: 1867).

4 See B. A. Gerrish, A Prince of the Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984). Harold O. J. Brown shows the connections between pietism, mysticism, and romanticism. See “Romanticism and the Bible,” in Challenges to Inerrancy: A Theological Response, eds. G. Lewis and B. Demarest (Chicago: Moody, 1984), pp. 497–66.

5 The continuing influence of Quaker spirituality upon evangelicalism can be seen in the immense popularity of the books of R. J. Foster. For example, see Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (San Francisco: Harper & Row, rev, edition, 1988).

6 Ioannis Calvini, Institutio Christianae Religionis, in Opera Selecta, ed. P. Barth and W. Niesel, 5 vols., 3rd edition (Munich: Chr. Kaiser,1962–1974), 4.18.1,6. For the English text see John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. F. L. Battles, ed. J. T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960).

7 The doctrine of the twofold benefit (duplex beneficium) is an important part of Reformed theology. It is found in Calvin. See Institutio, 3.11.1. It was the organizing principle of the Heidelberg theologian Caspar Olevian (1536-1587), who used it frequently. See, for example, De substantia foederis gratuiti inter Deum et electos(Geneva: 1585), 1.1.2; 2.69. On the relations between seals and the covenant theology of Scripture, see S. S. Smalley, s.v., “Seal, sealing,”The New Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, Ml: Zondervan, repr. 1975).

8 Matthew 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-26; Luke 22:14-23. Passover was the first feast of the new year, celebrating God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. For a contemporary critical account see B. A. Bokser, s.v., “Passover,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1992). For an evangelical account, see M. R. Wilson, s.v., “Passover,”International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979–88).

9 See E. P. Clowney, The Doctrine of the Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995).

10 Institutio, 4.16.30.